Security and Defense: Talking Turkey

Peres encounters an ally that differs with Israel on Iran, Syria and the Palestinian conflict.

Gul Peres 224.88 (photo credit: GPO)
Gul Peres 224.88
(photo credit: GPO)
Hours after landing at Ankara International Airport on Sunday, President Shimon Peres was sitting in a packed concert hall at Bilkent University listening to professors - one after another - praise him for his dedication to global peace. After receiving an honorary doctorate and listening to a 40-piece orchestra play the Israeli and Turkish national anthems, Peres took to the podium to answer questions from the audience. The questions were wide-ranging, focusing on the chances of making peace at the Annapolis summit later this month and Israel's approach to the Iranian nuclear threat. After the diplomatic questions, a young American undergrad took the microphone and asked Peres how he manages to balance his private and public lives. "You see a contradiction?" Peres's asked back, to the laughter of the entire audience. For Peres, there is obviously no contradiction. After spending three days with him in Turkey, one begins to understand that while he might be 84, he has the stamina of a man half his age and never stops moving. During his state visit as a guest of Turkish President Abdullah Gul, Peres had full days of meetings, press conferences, ceremonies, dinners and cocktails. Despite the numerous press conferences and statements, Peres never used notes, except in his historic address to the Turkish parliament, the first time an Israeli leader spoke in Hebrew before a Muslim legislature. At Belkint, he spoke off the cuff about the wonders of education and technology and how "knowledge has no borders." At his press conference with Gul, he delivered an address about the key role Turkey is playing in the Middle East, and at the Neveh Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul - targeted in a 2003 terror attack - Peres spoke in English about global terrorism and the strong ties Israel has with Turkey, moving the hundreds of Jewish community members who packed the hall to tears. Peres has a few messages that he repeated over and over again during his visit. Firstly, in line with the signing of an agreement Tuesday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to establish a new Turkish-run industrial zone in the West Bank, Peres told anyone willing to listen that "15,000 new jobs could do more for the PA than 15,000 rifles." He also spoke about the threat originating in Iran, warning from every available podium that the Islamic Republic was pursuing weapons of mass destruction with the desire of spreading its own hegemony throughout the world. THE TURKS went all out for Peres, who was on his first official state visit abroad since taking up the presidency in July. He was met at the airport by the defense minister, put up at the presidential palace (Saudi King Abdullah, who visited several days earlier, stayed in a hotel), hosted for a festive dinner attended by the entire Turkish leadership, invited to address a packed parliament and had usually traffic-packed roads cleared for him as he traversed the city. Peres, as could be expected, enjoyed every moment, telling reporters who accompanied him he was actually a little surprised by the warm treatment he received. Peres plays the role of the elder statesman well. He closely follows protocol, is gracious and funny and is clearly enjoying his job. Asked by reporters if he missed the Knesset, he said that he has never been busier in his political career, and that as president he has the opportunity to promote projects and initiatives he couldn't touch when in the cabinet. He also confessed to being able to avoid answering politically-tricky questions, such as whether Ehud Olmert is a good prime minister. BUT, BEHIND the façade of smiles and affectionate handshakes, Peres encountered a Turkey that is not exactly aligned with Israel on some of its key and most sensitive issues - Iran, Syria and the Palestinian conflict. Take the Iranian nuclear program as an example. Differences over its gravity were at the heart of talks Peres and Gul held on Monday and, for a moment, even seemed to cause a slight diplomatic crisis, after Peres said from the podium at the presidential palace that he disagreed with his Turkish host. Members of Peres's delegation later confessed that it was unusual for a presidential guest to openly speak about disagreements with his host. In their private meeting, Peres told Gul that Israel cannot accept a nuclear Iran. In response, Gul said that while Turkey was against the development and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, it believed countries had the right to develop alternative sources of energy. The clear discrepancy gives Israeli-Turkish ties a different twist. ISRAELI-Turkish ties date back to March 1949, when Turkey became the first Muslim country to formally recognize the newborn State of Israel. Since then, Israel has turned into a major arms supplier to Turkey, with strategic, diplomatic and economic cooperation growing on an annual basis. Trade between the countries has soared over the past decade, jumping from $150 million in 1996 to $2.3 billion last year, not to mention the 400,000 Israeli tourists that annually flock to Turkey. On his trip to Ankara, Peres was accompanied by Avi Felder, CEO of Israel Military Industries, which in 2002 signed a $688 million deal with Turkey to upgrade 150 tanks. Defense officials said that Turkey was interested in adding more tanks to the deal. Ties with Turkey are important for a number of reasons, but first and foremost because it is a Muslim country that Israel believes can serve as a bridge to other countries in the Middle East. This is exactly the role Turkey would like to play, and Gul openly declared that Turkey was always available to mediate between Israel and other countries, such as Syria. Turkey enjoys a unique position in the Middle East. As a Muslim state, it has warm relations with its neighbors, Syria and Iran. As a democratic and secular state, it also enjoys warm ties with Israel, the US and Europe. As Peres said: "Turkey is the bridge between three continents, as well as three different religions." Turkey has already played a crucial role in Israel-Syria negotiations, which eventually failed, despite a series of quiet negotiations and meetings, and Gul this week told Peres that in his opinion Syrian President Bashar Assad was interested in a "lasting peace" with Israel. TURKISH INVOLVEMENT may not be able to solve the Palestinian conflict, but is believed by Israel to have the ability to increase the chances for success at Annapolis. The meeting of the Ankara Forum - during which the agreement on the new industrial zone was signed - was essentially, Israeli officials explained, the materialization of Peres's vision that through economic benefits the situation on the ground can improve. It was also, as Peres said, a "station" on the way to making peace with the Palestinians. Peres's visit, then, was not just about smiles and ceremonies. It was also an attempt to get Turkey on Israel's side with regard to the Iranian threat. During his visit, where he was accompanied by his military aide, Brig.-Gen. Shimon Hefetz, Peres presented the Turkish leadership with classified intelligence information concerning Iran's race toward nuclear power. In February, Defense Minister Ehud Barak is also scheduled to visit Ankara to keep up the pressure. THE WAY Turkey views Iran is far different from the way the threat is perceived in Jerusalem. While Peres and the rest of the Israeli leadership claim a nuclear Iran is something Israel cannot live with, in Ankara, Gul questioned the veracity of the claim that Teheran was in fact pursuing nuclear weapons. This supposedly naïve pretense is due, in part, to Turkey's own aspirations to develop nuclear power. Just last Friday, Turkey's parliament passed a bill paving the way for the construction of three nuclear reactors, planned to be operational by 2015. Two weeks before that, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced his own similar plans. So. though, Iran poses a threat to both of these countries, it is also currently providing them with an excuse to initiate their own independent nuclear programs. For Israel, such a scenario is definitely an alarming one.